Ask a Book Question: The Twentieth in a Series (Getting Kakutanied)

June 15, 2004 | 1 book mentioned 2 min read

Garth writes in with this question about Michiko Kakutani, the menacing daily book critic for the New York Times:

Honestly, what is wrong with Michiko Kakutani? I’m referring here to her unflattering review of David Foster Wallace’s new book, but, just in general, what is her deal?

Kakutani seems to be one of those people who is feared and misunderstood more than disliked, though many profess disliking her. She is unknowable, reportedly something of a recluse, and yet twice a week she exercises swift justice in one of the world’s most public forums. Her reviews can often seem mean-spirited, and authors and readers sometimes wonder if she holds some sort of mysterious grudge against much of the literary world. To get a taste of her importance in the literary world, this NPR story is worth a listen. In it, her penchant for going for the jugular is discussed, and the theory is proffered that Michiko Kakutani’s “problem” is one shared by many reviewers. The book reviewer’s plight has been touched upon by many writers: book after book shows up at the doorstep, deadline begets deadline and the reviewer begins to hate the idea of books rather than the books themselves. After reviewing hundreds of mediocre books they forget what it feels like to be surprised and refreshed by the written word, they dread that the joy of reading has been forever destroyed. So, perhaps Kakutani’s mean reviews are just a form of occupational rage. On the other hand, Jonathan Yardley, the much warmer reviewer for the Washington Post, has been in the reviewing business for decades and his love for his work is clearly evident. To top it off, he was reported to have been “so unimpressed with Kakutani that when he heard she won a Pulitzer, he wanted to send his back.” Still, given her consistent meanness, it is undeniably exhilarating when she bestows praise upon a new book, and I am always interested in reading this new book that managed to warm Kakutani’s cold, unfeeling heart.

If you don’t like my explanation, an old piece by Colin McEnroe on the McSweeney’s website offers a different theory.

created The Millions and is its publisher. He and his family live in New Jersey.

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